YULI UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

How Yuli Gurriel's contract extension impacts the Astros moving forward

This appears to be a good deal for Houston. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Prior to the postseason series with the Minnesota Twins, the Houston Astros announced that impending free agent first baseman Yuli Gurriel would return on a one-year, $7M deal. The contract includes a club option for 2022 for $8M.

Gurriel was far from the biggest fish facing the market for the Astros -- that's still George Springer -- but first base was a legitimate question mark for 2021 and beyond. Taylor Jones has been uninspiring in his Major League cup of coffee and doesn't seem like a long-term solution, and nobody else in the system stands out either. That being said, Gurriel had the worst season of his career in 2020. Is it smart to depend on a 37-year-old to bounce back? Was 2019 an outlier or the beginning of regression? Could the Astros have found similar production for a cheaper price on the market?

Gurriel has one of the most unique batted ball profiles in MLB, making him a tough hitter to judge.

He relies on bat-to-ball skills. He's never had a K% worse than his 2020 mark of 11.7%, clocking in at 10.6%, 11%, and 11% the last three seasons. He had an 8.8% mark in his abbreviated rookie campaign in 2016. Even his career worst mark of 11.7% is elite strikeout avoidance, placing in the 97th percentile in MLB in 2020.

The dedication to contact comes with a consequence: he doesn't do a ton of damage.

Gurriel broke out for 31 homers in 2019, but remember, the baseball was "juiced" in 2019. There's evidence that the ball has normalized again in 2020, as home runs dropped 8% despite the entire season only being played in warm weather months. For most of his career, Gurriel has been a 15-homer type of hitter. He hit 6 homers in 57 in games in 2020, which would've put him in that 15-homer range over a full 162 game season if he kept at that pace.

That completely makes sense. Take a look at the ridiculous level of consistency here.

YEAR

BARREL %

HARD HIT %

EXIT VELOCITY

2016

3.4%

36.1%

88.8

2017

3.4%

43.6%

89.9

2018

1.9%

36.6%

89.3

2019

3.6%

38.1%

89.3

2020

3.7%

36.5%

89.3

It's almost impossible to be that consistent. Simply put, what story do these numbers tell? First, both the Barrel% and Hard Hit% are well below league average, especially the barrel numbers. His exit velocity is above league average, but it isn't special by any means. Gurriel is an "old school" player. He doesn't elevate the ball a ton, and he doesn't strike out a ton. If he played in the '80s, he'd be a household name and multiple time All-Star.

So, why are Gurriel's 2020 numbers so much worse than 2019?

  • Neutralized Baseball
  • Bad Luck
  • Plate Discipline

Gurriel never has been and never again will be a 30-homer player. Again, he's a line drive profile that doesn't swing and miss a lot. He's also not a .232/.274/.384 hitter as his 2020 line shows.

Gurriel's BABIP in 2020 was .235, which is way below his career mark of .291. BABIP stands for "Batting Average on Balls In Play", so in his career, Gurriel gets a hit 29.1% of the time the ball is in play. Just based off of luck alone, there's about .060 points in batting average out there to be had. If Gurriel hit .292 instead of .232, people would feel a lot better on the surface. That's the bad luck part of it.

Gurriel actually had a career best mark in Zone Contact%, making contact on 94% of the strikes he swung at, about 3.5% better than his career mark, and a 3% improvement on 2019. Where his discipline profile changed was his ability to make contact on pitches OUTSIDE of the zone. Gurriel's Chase% was right in line with his career marks, chasing 34.3% of pitches outside the zone, but his Contact% on those dropped a whopping 6% from 75.4% to 69.6%. For a hitter as consistent as Gurriel everywhere else, that stands out as a massive difference. He also inexplicably swung at "meatballs", which are pitches right down the middle, only 62% of the time, 13% lower than last year.

On top is Gurriel's 2019 swing profile. Right below it is Gurriel's 2020 swing profile. It immediately stands out how much more Gurriel swung at pitches up and out of the strike zone and on the outer-third of the plate. While his chase-rate was the same year-to-year, there's a clear problem area in 2020 compared to a spread in 2019. Pitches up in the zone also play up in velocity, which could show that Gurriel's hands are slowing down a tick if he's struggling to get to that pitch. He also swung at a lot of pitches on the outer-third, which isn't necessarily a pitch he's successful with. Gurriel makes his money on pitches on the inner-third, especially at Minute Maid Park with the short porch.

Luck alone will get Gurriel pretty close to the player that he was from 2016-2018. A refined approach, like telling himself to hunt pitches down and lay off pitches away until necessary, can get him to tap into something more. The neutralized baseball will keep him from being 2019 Yuli, but all-in-all, the contract for Gurriel looks like a good deal. He plays plus defense at first base, his numbers indicate he can still be a productive bat in the lineup, and the free agent market at first base isn't all that impressive. Carlos Santana and Anthony Rizzo -- who both had bad 2020s as well -- headline the market, with guys like C.J. Cron and Mitch Moreland representing the next lower dollar options. Rizzo and Santana would likely be more expensive than Gurriel. Cron and Moreland would be cheaper, but they're also not as good. James Click's first extension as General Manager looks to be the right move at first glance.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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